Sudden change to scrap import policies in China brought with it market turmoil in 2018, but veteran recyclers have plenty of experience in adapting to swift change. That was a prevailing sentiment from three such industry veterans who comprised a panel discussion group at the 2018 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Europe, held in Prague, Czech Republic in early November.
In a discussion moderated by Recycling Today Media Group Publisher Jim Keefe, Cees van Berkel of Netherlands-based CVB Ecologistics BV, Reuben Bolton of United Kingdom-based Bolton Brothers Ltd., and Jan van der Roest of Netherlands-based Van Scherpenzeel BV reflected back on what their decades of recycling industry experience has taught them.
Van Berkel was among the panelists with a recovered fiber background who reacted to the stagnancy and then reduction in the graphic paper sectors by having CVB Ecologistics become “active in pursuing hard plastics” about 10 years ago.
He said in all market conditions, managing a recycling firm involves “making the margins” available between procurement and resale of scrap materials. In boom times and downturns, he said, “You learn to cope; sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s difficult.”
Van der Roest, whose company was purchased by France-based Veolia in 2017, said the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis years were perilous for his firm, and he had to oversee a reduction in the workforce from 88 employees to just 38. “We lost some big customers,” he recalled. Subsequently, he added, the business has been able to get back on the growth track and now has 65 employees.
Bolton said his father Michael started the family business in 1969, and he and his father have seen “lots of peaks and lots of troughs.” The Bolton Brothers business has evolved from focusing initially on metal to emphasizing scrap paper in the 1980s.
Regarding China’s import restrictions, he says the way his firm now prepares its paper grades means “we have to change with the market conditions that are in front of us.”
The panelists said the Chinese government’s sharp policy change was just the latest example of how political decisions can disrupt the recycling market. “Whenever politicians mingle in our business, it’s never good,” van der Roest commented.
Van der Roest expressed optimism that industry cooperation, such as a recent alliance between Veolia and consumer products company Unilever, represents the right kind of dialog. He said the project “will evolve and change the design of the packaging. There must be a change in that.”
Van Berkel said the paper industry has proven itself to have a sustainable or circular business model, but that politicians may prove helpful in pushing the plastics sector in that same direction. “Here is where we need politicians,” he remarked, referring to some of the recycling targets being set by European governments.
The 2018 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Europe event was Nov. 6-7 at the Corinthia Prague Hotel in Prague, Czech Republic. The 2019 conference will be in Barcelona Nov. 5-6, 2019.